September 22: Deuteronomy 32:32-35

Deuteronomy 32:32-35

This stanza, or section, of the Song of Moses (Deut 32) represents an early precursor of the “Day of YHWH” theme that would become so prominent in the judgment- and nation-oracles of the Prophets. The “Day of YHWH” refers to a time when God (YHWH) will bring judgment on a particular nation or people. Originally, the concept was not eschatological, but eventually it came to have that orientation—as a time, at the end of the current Age, when God would judge all the nations together. Here, this early form of the idea simply signifies, in a general sense, a divine punishment that will soon befall the various nations, for their wickedness and idolatry. If the poem earlier referred to YHWH’s judgment against His people Israel, it is affirmed now that the other peoples will also be judged, and even more severely. Even for those nations whom God made use of to punish Israel, they will be judged and punished in turn.

Many of the motifs in this section came to be traditional Judgment-motifs which would be used subsequently in prophetic oracles, and in developed eschatological/apocalyptic writings such as the book of Revelation (cf. below).

The stanza of vv. 32-35 is perhaps the clearest and most consistent poetically in the entire poem. It consists of 6 couplets (12 lines), which, with only slight variation, have a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format throughout. Thematically, the stanza can be divided rather neatly into two parts, of 3 couplets each.

Verses 32-33 (couplets 1-3)

“Indeed, their vine (is) from (the) vine of Sodom,
and from (the cultivated) fields of ‘Amorah;
their grapes (are) grapes of (deadly) poison,
clusters of (fierce) bitterness for them;
(the) hot (venom) of serpents (is) their wine,
and (the) cruel poison of twisting (snake)s!”

The primary motif in these couplets is the grape-vine (and wine) as a symbol of judgment. The visual similarity of dark-red grape juice to blood made it an obvious figure for death and destruction—whether or not literal bloodshed was involved (Prov 4:17, etc). It came to be used as a traditional symbol for God’s judgment against humankind—cf. Psalm 75:9 [8]; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15-16; Lam 4:21; Ezek 23:31-34. The harvest itself similarly came to serve as a figure for the Judgment that will occur at the end of the current Age (Matt 3:12 par; 13:36-43, etc), and the grape-harvest was an especially appropriate metaphor in this regard, evoking the image of flowing blood and a blood-stained ground (Joel 3:13). Related is the motif of the drinking-cup (a cup of wine) which could symbolize a person’s fate or destiny (Isa 65:11), especially if it involved suffering or death (Mk 10:38-39; 14:23f, 36 pars, and note the Old Testament passages cited above). The book of Revelation makes extensive (and memorable) use of all this imagery—14:8, 10, 17-20; 16:19; 17:1ff; 18:6ff.

The tradition of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) was a very specific type-pattern for God’s judgment on the nations, as well as symbolic of human wickedness in general (cf. Amos 4:11; Isa 3:9; 13:19; Jer 23:14; 49:18; 50:40; Lam 4:6; Ezek 16:46ff; Zeph 2:9). The reference in Isa 1:9-10 occurs in a context similar to that of the poem here (cf. also Deut 29:23). Subsequently in Jewish and early Christian tradition, Sodom and Gomorrah continued as type-pattern for the end-time Judgment (Matt 10:15 par; 11:23-24; Luke 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; Rev 11:8); however, it must be noted again that, here in the poem, the focus is not eschatological.

The specific figure of poisonous wine indicates an especially harsh or painful punishment. Three different terms are used to describe this:

    • v[a]or (rôš), which would seem to refer to a particular kind of poisonous plant, and thus to the idea of “poison” generally. It is used twice, in lines 3 and 6 respectively.
    • hr*r)m= (m®rœrâ), line 4, meaning “bitterness” —i.e., the bitter taste that is characteristic of poison.
    • hm*j@ (µ¢mâ), line 5, which literally means “heat”, but in such a context indicates the burning affect of poison; the venom of a poisonous snake is specifically in mind.
Verses 34-35 (couplets 4-6)

“Is it not stored away with me,
sealed among my stored (treasure)s?
Vengeance for me and making whole,
at (the) time their foot slips (away)!
For (indeed) (the) day of affliction (is) close,
and what (is) prepared for them rushes (near)!”

If the first three couplets of this stanza describe God’s punishment on the nations under the figure of wine, the idea in the last three couplets is of the wine (that is, the judgment) ultimately being poured out. The specific image of pouring is only implied here; in other passages this is made more explicit (cf. the prophetic oracles cited above, also Rev 14:10; 16:1ff). However, we clearly have the idea that the wine (of judgment) is stored away for use (where it will be ‘poured’ out on the nations), in the treasure-rooms of YHWH’s palace. On the important motif of the opening of something stamped with a seal (here indicated by the verb <t^j*), see the visions in Revelation 5:1-8:5. The eschatological aspect of this motif is derived largely from Daniel 12:4.

The precise meaning of the verb pair <L@v!w+ <q*n` in v. 35a is difficult to capture and render in English. The root <qn fundamentally means “avenge, take revenge”, that is, for an injustice that has occurred. By doing so, a person essentially makes the situation right again; this latter aspect is indicated by the verb <l^v*, for which the basic meaning is something like “make whole“. While this sort of vengeance-concept is generally foreign to our Christian sensibilities, it is very much part of the thought-world of the ancient Near East, and occurs quite frequently in the Old Testament. The fundamental idea here is that the divine judgment (punishment) brings recompense and correction to the wickedness exhibited by humankind.

The time when this judgment on a particular nation will occur is signified by the moment when their “foot slips”. This idiom refers to the experience of calamity and misfortune, following a period of strength (that is, when their feet were set firm/secure on the ground). Such misfortune (indicated by the use of the noun dya@ in the final couplet) is to be attributed to the sovereign will and action of God. The judgment comes suddenly (and unexpectedly), being, in fact, closer to the wicked/foolish nation than was ever realized (it was something already “prepared” [dyt!u*] for them). The parallelism of the final couplet captures this wonderfully, by combining the idea of the judgment being near (adj. borq*) and of rushing (i.e., hurrying, vb vWj) toward the people.

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